Secret Garden – An Inspector Kirby Northumbrian Mystery

Here’s the Amazon link: http://smarturl.it/kirbysecretgarden

One

Maisie was awake long before her alarm went off.  She’d been looking at her clock for over an hour willing the time to pass.  She’d tried to go back to sleep, however, the local crows had been running up and down the gutter in their clogs cursing each other with raucous calls, making it impossible.  The sun was shining, adding its summer glow to the sunflowers on her curtains.  Maisie lay back, staring at the shadows dancing on the ceiling, thinking of everything this day meant to her.  It was the last day of the summer term.  Not that it was the thought of six weeks holiday which had her excited.  Well, it did, however, the last day of term was when she’d see the walled garden.  It was always the last day of term.  She’d given up looking any other time.  And although she’d never seen behind the wall she was certain the garden was there, hidden behind the line of old red bricks.  Like the story, a secret garden.

Maisie grabbed her diary from the bedside table and entered the secret code, her birthday backwards, into the lock and opened it at 24th July 2007.  ‘The RITUAL DAY is here!!! and this time is the day I get to see the garden.  The door in the wall will let me through.  I’m sure of it, certain, doubly certain, one hundred and ten per cent (even though I know that’s not possible).  I know it’s going to be super special.  Report back later.’  She then flung back the covers and headed for the bathroom.

Maisie padded her way downstairs.  She was early, which she admitted, was something of a novelty these days.  Even her doggy slippers looked as if they were surprised to be on her feet at this time in the morning.   Her Mam remarked on it in a positive way, well, sort of.  More a sarcastic way really, as in, ‘Oh My, what’s this, an apparition?  It’s not even eight o’clock yet.’

‘Ha, ha, Mam.’

‘Oh, it’s you Maisie, dear and ready for school as well.  I know it’s the last day of term.’  At that point her Mam put a hand on Maisie’s forehead.  ‘Are you feeling unwell?  Shall I write a note?  Or do you have a secret assignation with a new paramour?’  And yes, she did talk like that.  In Maisie’s opinion her Mam read far too much rubbishy romantic fiction.

Maisie stuck her tongue out, put a slice of bread in the toaster and poured herself a cup of tea.

What her Mam didn’t realise, because she had never mentioned it to anyone, ever, was that the last day of summer term for the past five years had become her “ritual day”.

Since she started school ten years ago Maisie had walked the same streets, passed the same houses every day, except of course for holidays, or when she’d had the day off ill.  Not that her mother let her get away with much of that, ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll be as right as rain by lunchtime,’ was her usual response to Maisie complaining of a tummy ache, headache, double pneumonia, leprosy.  Not that Maisie could ever see what was so right with rain.  Once she’d been dragged to school for two days before her Mam relented and taken her to the doctors only to discover she had chicken-pox.  Then of course the whole of her class had it.  ‘Well it’s for the best,’ was her Mam’s verdict.

Anyway, part of the walk to school involved a high, Maisie reckoned about twelve feet, unbroken brick wall, which sort of wasn’t there.  Only it was, for Maisie.  At first it’d seemed strange to her young mind, then she’d just accepted it.  For the first five years Maisie had merely wondered as she trudged past it, holding her Mam’s hand, staring up at the red bricks only she could see.  At the time it all said ‘keep out’.  It also said don’t talk about me and she had the sense, even at that age, not to if she didn’t want to be thought of as a bit odd.  When she was ten her Mam had relented and allowed her to walk to school with her friends.  And at the end of every term when they reached where the wall was, or rather wasn’t, she’d lag behind running her hand across the rough bricks only she could see and poke her fingers into the old, flaky mortar.  To her hand the bricks felt warm and welcoming as if to say ‘never mind everyone else we chose you.’

On that first last day of the summer term when she wasn’t with her Mam, five years ago, her friends were skipping and giggling ahead of her when Maisie noticed, around the final corner of the wall, behind a holly bush, a door.  She hadn’t seen it before, maybe the holly had been cut back, or perhaps she simply hadn’t looked, or it hadn’t been there before.  Who knew what this wall was capable of?  Whatever, there it was.  It was old, heavy looking and painted green.  It appeared to have been painted green many times as, in a number of places, the paint was flaking away to reveal more layers of green underneath.  Maisie squeezed behind the holly, ignoring the odd scratch and prickle.  On the door was a large metal ring.  She’d tried to turn it, then pulled and pushed.  It wouldn’t move and after a shout of ‘come on Maisie we’ll be late.’ She gave up.  On the last day of the autumn term she’d looked for the door again, but couldn’t see it, or maybe the holly had grown back.  Then the last day of that school year there it was again.  Perhaps the holly was trimmed at the same time every year.  Again, Maisie tried the door and again it wouldn’t budge.

So every last day of the summer term had a sense of anticipation to it that had nothing to with the impending six weeks of freedom or the annual family holiday.  This year Maisie couldn’t wait, she had a good feeling about this “ritual day” and was determined to give it her full attention.  Hence why she’d risked her Mam’s sarcasm by getting up early.  She was ready to go well before her friend would be leaving and stood peering out of the front window.

‘I’m sure he’ll wait for you, dear,’ her mother said.

‘Mam!’

She opened the front door as her friend Helen was walking up the path, they’d pick up Esmie on-route.  ‘Bye, Mam.’

‘Bye, dear and remember no tongues on a first date.’

Maisie shuddered and banged the door shut.  Her Mam could be so… so, gauche.  That was it gauche, or at least that was the word she was sure her Mam would use.  Maisie could think of a few others which were a little less polite.

The forecast on the Beeb had been good and the day was already warming up.  Everything looked better bathed in sunshine.  Front gardens were full of dainty flowers all vying to be the brightest in the border.  Even the dreary little houses cheered up.  Esmie joined them at the end of her road.  Today though, Maisie wasn’t interested in their girly conversation and giggles about the latest pop stars or which boys fancied them.  No, her attention was on where the wall was, or wasn’t to everyone else.  She looked up at its foreboding height.  Then she touched the bricks and they were warm and welcoming as if they were calling to her.  She stroked her way along to the corner and sure enough there was the door, behind the holly bush.  What’s more she’d come prepared and took from her bag a pair of her Dad’s secateurs.

‘Ah, ha,’ she said.  ‘Got you this year, no scratches for me.’  A quick look back confirmed Helen and Esmie weren’t watching.  Maisie knew, although she didn’t know how she knew, they couldn’t see her anyway.  It was like she was behind that one-way glass they used in police dramas on the telly, only there was no glass.  She turned her attention back to the holly and started a bit of judicious pruning.  After a minute or so she was satisfied and edged her way along to the door.  ‘Ow,’ Maisie looked down and snipped the branch that was snagging her bare leg.  She half suspected she could hear the bush sniggering.  However, she was here now.  Maisie smoothed her hair back, tucking a few errant strands behind her ears and rested a hand against the door.  She took a deep breath and grabbed the handle.  ‘One, two, three, turn’.  To her surprise it did turn and the door glided open.  She’d expected to have to push hard, that there would have been some resistance and the protesting squeal of rusty hinges.  In some ways it was a bit disappointing.  That is until she focused on what was beyond the door.  She was right, she was right, she was right!  It had to be the most wonderful garden she’d ever seen.  Those patches she passed on her way to school should be ashamed to call themselves gardens.  This was a garden.  A garden to top all gardens.

Maisie stepped through the gateway and looked down, her feet crunching on the gravel path.  Although, calling it gravel was too mundane.  There were little stones in an amazing variety of colours from white to almost black, red, yellow, and orange ones glowing in the sunshine.  On the wall side, tall bushes with all possible shades of lilac flowers from almost white to deep lavender were relishing the summer warmth.  On the other side were pink roses in more shades than she would have thought possible.  She was reminded of the silly magazines some of her friends read, where the boy gave the girl a rose and the soppy thing would flutter her eyelashes and clutch it to her bosom.  What’s more if the girl was anything like her friend Caroline, over the last year she’d have developed quite a substantial bosom to clutch it too.  No doubt, Maisie thought, what had attracted the rose giver in the first place.  The girl would sniff the flower and flutter her eyelashes again, ‘Oh, Roger, how romantic.’  This was then the cue for a quick snog.

Maisie bent down and with the tip of her finger pulled the nearest bloom towards her.  Wow, she had to admit if any boy gave her a rose smelling as divine as this then he deserved a snog.  It was as she was recovering from the almost overpowering scent she heard the crunch of footsteps coming her way.  Maisie tiptoed across the path onto the border and slid behind a large lilac only a little concerned by the number of bees visiting its flowers.  The crunching stopped.

 

 

Two

‘Please come out.  I know you’re there and I’d love to meet you after all this time.’

Maisie hesitated for a second then stepped out.  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, having learnt some time ago immediately saying sorry, even if she wasn’t sure what she’d done wrong, was often the less painful option.

‘Why?’ the man said, which was not the response she’d been expecting.  The gentleman in front of her and she used the word “gentleman” deliberately as it seemed to fit, was she guessed, about the same age as her uncle Michael, who was about seven years younger than her Dad, well maybe even a little younger.  He was dressed in something longer than a jacket and not quite a coat.  It looked quite formal and she wondered if he wasn’t a little hot, although he didn’t look it as he smiled at her.

‘I’m sorry?’ Maisie said.

‘So you’ve said.  Although there’s no need to be.’  The man smiled again.

Maisie wondered if she should feel frightened.

‘Take a deep breath,’ the man said, spreading his arms, taking a deep breath himself.  ‘What can you smell?’ he added after she had done so.

‘Er, the wonderful flowers, and the soil I guess.’

The man grinned.  ‘Not danger then?’

Maisie squinted at him.  ‘No… no, I don’t think so.  Mind you I’ve always thought it was a bit of daft expression.  Unless of course you’re in John Lewis perfume department at Christmas looking for a present for your Mam and a sales assistant spots you.’

The man laughed.  ‘John Lewis?  If you say so.’

‘Well, nice meeting you.’  Maisie felt as if she should curtsy, something she’d only ever done once while presenting flowers to the Mayor when he’d visited her guide company three years ago.  She didn’t.  She half turned.  ‘I think I best be going,’ she said, glancing towards the gate which was still half open.  ‘Don’t want to be late for school.  You know, shame to get into trouble last day of term.’

The man pulled a sad face.  ‘You haven’t seen the rest of the garden.’

Maisie shrugged an apology.  ‘Yes, well, time and tide wait for no girl and all that.’

‘Ah, so time is the problem.’

Maisie was used to conversations going in peculiar directions when talking to her Mam.  She had the feeling this might be about to rival one of those.  ‘Yes, isn’t it always?’

‘What time did you enter the garden?’

‘Eight twenty-five.  I know because I looked at my watch when I opened the gate.’

‘And what time is it now?’

Maisie looked at her watch.  ‘Er, eight twenty-five.’  She put it to her ear, then shook her wrist before looking at it again.  It still said eight twenty-five.

‘Shaking them only used to have any effect when they were actually clockwork you know, and even then not very often.’

Maisie squinted at the watch.  ‘Damn thing.  It was a birthday present, only a few weeks ago as well.’

‘Don’t worry it’s fine,’ the man said, taking a large watch on a gold chain out of his pocket.  ‘Yes, eight twenty-five.’  He held it out for Maisie to see.  She could hear it ticking and tocking, except the second hand was bouncing on the spot.  ‘So you see, you have all the time you need.’

‘For what?’

The man spread his arms again to take in everything around him.  ‘To see the rest of the garden of course.  It’s what you came in for wasn’t it?’   He frowned.  ‘I’m sorry, it’s now my turn to apologise.  What must you think of me?  Where are my manners?  Can I offer you some refreshment, tea perhaps?  I have an excellent Darjeeling.   Do young girls drink tea?  I might be able to find some lemonade.’

Maisie was still wondering if she should feel frightened.  She didn’t, not even a little worried.  Surely, if someone meant you harm they’d be tempting you with vodka or cider or something and not a cup of Darjeeling, whatever that was.  Her Dad always insisted on Yorkshire tea bags for a decent brew as he put it.  She glanced down the path to the gate.  If she sprinted she was pretty sure she could beat him there.

The man smiled and extended a hand towards the gate as if reading her thoughts.  ‘If you must.  However, the garden will be so disappointed.  After all, we did invite you in and we’re so very particular.’

‘The garden…’ Maisie started to say.

The man smiled.

‘Well, maybe just a cup of tea then.’

‘Excellent and perhaps a shortbread biscuit might be in order.’

The man turned and started a slow stroll down the path away from the gate.  Maisie fell in beside him.  She nearly said ‘do you come here often,’ but changed it to, ‘Have you been here long?’

‘That depends on what you count as “here”.’

Maisie frowned, he was worse than her Mam.

The man chuckled.  ‘Forgive me.  As long as I can remember.’

‘So where do you live.’

The man pointed up a slight incline to a large house.  Well, it wasn’t that large, certainly not as big as some of those country houses her parents dragged her around when they were on holiday.  Just a lot bigger than what she considered a “normal” house.  ‘There I suppose.’

‘Hang on a minute, it must be half a mile away.’

‘I suppose it must be, yes.  Although I’ve never had cause to measure it accurately.’

Maisie stopped, staring ahead, shielding her eyes against the sunshine.  ‘No I mean, I can walk along the wall in a minute or two.  The garden can’t be so big.’

The man looked around.  His brow creased, thinking about it.  ‘I think you’ll find it is.’

Maisie glanced at her watch, it was still eight twenty-five.

‘Is everything fine?’

Maisie started walking again.  ‘I’m not sure.’  The man smiled at her and she felt reassured.

‘You know, I find a nice cup of tea solves so many things.’

‘Really?’

‘Oh, yes, makes everything just tickety-boo.’  He winked at her.  ‘Especially with shortbread biscuits.’

Again, she felt anyone remotely dangerous would not say “tickety-boo”.  A bit weird maybe, but not dangerous.  Maisie shrugged and smiled back.  ‘I’m sure it does.’

Ambling along the gravel path it was almost as if the flowers either side lent towards him.  Those leaning close enough he stroked and Maisie found herself doing the same.  She thought it must be one of the most comforting things she’d ever done, a bit like sitting near the fire with her feet in her toasty slippers and the cat in her lap.  Except that is this was outdoors, she was in her school uniform and there was no cat of course.

Maisie studied her companion as they continued in silence, that is if she ignored the scrunch, scrunch, of feet on gravel.   The man had a look of utter contentment on his face as if he didn’t have a single worry in the world.   And for now Maisie was feeling the same.   ‘I’m sorry, but who are you?’

‘Me?  I’m the garden.’

‘You mean the Gardener?’

‘If you like.’

His face was unlined and yet she didn’t think him young.  He was almost pretty, rather than handsome, in a sort of Justin Beiber way.  Not that she was into Justine Beiber.  She shivered at the thought.

‘You alright?’ the Gardener asked.

‘Sorry, yes.  Fine.’

‘Excellent.’

The Gardener smiled at her again and Maisie had to admit she thought she’d never felt so fine.  It must be the effect of the garden.  Her Granddad could spend hours pottering around in his, not that Maisie ever saw what was so fascinating.  Sometimes he got her to give him a hand, however, she had to admit she generally got bored after half an hour.  Her Granddad would then slip her a few quid and thank her for helping, telling her he could cope on his own now.  The unspoken secret between them was she was never much help and anyway it wasn’t the point was it?  However, this, well this was different.

‘We’re here,’ the Gardener said.  ‘Please have a seat and enjoy the air while I make the tea.’

‘Oh, right,’ Maisie said realising she must have been daydreaming as she couldn’t remember arriving.  They were in some sort of summer house overlooking the garden.  She couldn’t see the actual house which she presumed was behind her.  She sat on the floral cushioned seat at a small table with ornate wrought iron legs and a tiled top.  Again, her Nan and Granddad had a similar one.  She wondered if this one came from Argos as well.  Perhaps not.  A plant with large purple flowers was climbing up the walls weaving in and out of the tiled roof.  Bees disappeared into the blooms and the slightest of breezes carried their wonderful scent.  Maisie leaned back, closed her eyes and breathed it in.  The sun was warm on her face as she listened to the high-pitched chatter of birds and the droning of insects.  The next thing she was aware of was the sound of chinking china.  She opened her eyes, the Gardener was setting a tray down on the table.

Maisie rubbed a hand over her face and straightened in the chair.  ‘Sorry, I must have nodded off for a moment.’

‘Yes,’ the Gardener said, pouring the tea.  ‘The garden can have that effect.  Milk?’

‘Please, no sugar though.’

‘Quite right.’  He passed her the delicate porcelain cup and saucer and then pushed a plate of the promised shortbread in her direction.  Maisie helped herself and took what she hoped was a delicate, ladylike nibble.

‘How is it?’

‘Wonderful,’ Maisie said, covering her mouth to avoid spraying crumbs.  They were wonderful, they melted in the mouth with the most intense buttery flavour.

‘I’m so glad you like them.’

Sipping her tea Maisie gazed out across the neat rows of planting.  Down one side was a stout hedge about six feet in height with here and there tantalising glimpses of reds and oranges and yellows.  She could hear the soft tinkling of flowing water, which must be a fountain.  The whole effect was to make you want to see what was there, to explore.  Yet something was missing.

‘Where are the other gardeners?’ she asked.

‘Others?’

‘Yes.  Surely you can’t look after all of this on your own?’

‘Look after?’  The Gardener stared around him then frowned.  ‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean?’

Maisie put her cup down.  A little uncertainty about being here was tapping at her thoughts.  ‘You said you were the Gardener.’

‘No, you said I was the Gardener.’

The man smiled and Maisie relaxed a little.  She glanced at her watch, ten forty-five.  No, it couldn’t be.  The uncertainty that had been tapping away was now knocking with alarm.  ‘Wow,’ Maisie said.  ‘How did that happen.  I’m so late, I’ll be in such trouble.’  She scowled at the man.  ‘This is your fault.  I can be so stupid at times.  I… ‘

The man held his hands up.  ‘Please, it can be fixed.’

‘What do you mean fixed?’

He took out his watch and showed it Maisie, eight twenty-five.  Maisie looked back at her own watch, eight twenty-five again.  The man’s smile calmed her once more, however, this time she was still aware of the tapping despite the feelings of contentment trying to drown it out.  She put her cup down, concentrated and decided a dignified exit might be the best way to handle it.  ‘Well, this has been really nice, but I think I should be going.  I do have school and all that, even if it is the last day of term.’

‘Of course,’ the man said rising from his seat.  ‘Perhaps we can walk down the other side of the garden?’ he said, pointing towards the hedge which intrigued Maisie.  ‘I’d hate for you to miss what I consider the most beautiful area.’

Maisie glanced at her watch again.  Still eight twenty-five.  ‘Alright, as long as we don’t dawdle.’

The man laughed.  ‘Dawdle?  Not if you don’t want to.  However, it really does make little difference.’

Maisie didn’t argue, she was just glad to be making her way back towards where she’d entered the garden.  Despite what her watch was telling her part of her brain was beginning to have doubts.

They left the summer house, walking down a few shallow steps before once again she felt the gravel under her feet and heard its familiar crunch.  Emerging through the hedge she’d seen from the summer house she saw this side of the garden was divided into compartments, what those over-arty gardening programmes, her granddad loved, might have called outside rooms.  Not that she’d ever bought into the idea, after all where was the telly or a socket to plug in your phone.  However, looking at this she kind of understood what they meant.

‘What do you think?’ the man asked. twirling a full circle, arms wide.

Maisie walked into the space and for a few seconds it was as if her brain couldn’t come up with words adequate to describe the beauty laid out before her.  That nothing she said could do it justice.  It was a riot of colour and form, threatening to overwhelm the senses.  Then there was the perfume.  Every step revealed new wonders and intoxicating aromas.  The sound of insects filled the air, flitting from flower to flower as if they too couldn’t decide where to focus their attention.  In the middle was a fountain, the crystal clarity of its cooling water was one of the most enticing things she’d ever seen.  ‘It’s… it’s just too wonderful.  ‘I can’t believe… I mean.’

‘Yes, even we struggle to remember how wonderful it must have been.’

‘I’m sorry, we?  Did you say must have been?’

Behind her there was a laugh, a woman’s laugh and it wasn’t a joyous sound or even kind.  It was the sort of laugh the Deputy Head made when she caught you doing something you shouldn’t.  Maisie spun around and standing next to the man was a woman of about the same height.  And next to her was another man, taller than the Gardener.  His coat was long and shimmered with mesmerising colours.  They were both wearing what looked like riding boots.  The man’s eyes were large and golden and the irises were vertical slits of darkness, like next doors bad-tempered and evil excuse for a cat.

Maisie’s brain suggested running, however, her legs didn’t want to respond.  And anyway, something told her it wouldn’t do any good.

‘So, this is the mortal girl?’ the woman said.  ‘All your nonsense with tea and biscuits, you could have lost her.’

At Maisie’s side the Gardener’s face contorted with anger in a way only a few minutes ago she wouldn’t have believed possible.  She couldn’t understand why she had trusted him.  It was like those on-line situations they were always warning you about, and she’d fallen for it.

‘I’ve told you before you cannot rush these things.  We’ve waited so many years.  What was a few more hours to make sure she was right.’

What did he mean, she was right?  Maisie’s vision clouded, tears filling her eyes.  Right for what?  She felt her legs giving way.  Her head swayed.  She was aware the garden that had been so incredibly beautiful was now a jungle of dead and dying plants.  Uncared for bushes sagged battling with each other for space.  Branches held out rotting fruits as if disgusted with them.  Flower borders were swamped under the weight of all-pervading brambles, stalks strangled with convolvulus.  What had been the joyful sound of happy insects was now an angry buzz.  The fountain was green and stagnant and the overriding smell was one of decay.  She glanced at the three smiling creatures in front of her as her vision narrowed.  She was fainting.

 

Three

Kirby opened the main door of the station eating his service station croissant.  Connie was staying so at home it was back to Muesli.  And she wasn’t pleased it hadn’t been touched since the last time she’d stayed.  He’d suggested he thought it might have been a bit “off” to which she’d snorted her derision, telling him it was all dried and therefore was hardly going to go off in a week or so.  For Kirby that was the problem with Muesli, it was always dry.  Even when you put milk on it as soon as it was in your mouth it became dry again with the consistency of flaked cardboard, saving for the odd, apologetic raisin.  In the reception area a tall thin woman in a green floor-length, floaty dress was standing at the counter.

‘And what was the make of the car, madam?’

The woman raised a hand and the multiple bangles on her arm jangled.  ‘Car?’

The Desk Sergeant stopped tapping at the keyboard and leaned forward with the air of one who’s seen it all and is already suspecting this is not going to be straightforward.  ‘Yes, madam.  The car you said had been stolen.’

The woman waved an arm, this time it was more of a jingle.  ‘Oh, I see.  No, you must have misheard me, I said karma.’

The Sergeant puffed out his cheeks while leaning an elbow on the desk and allowing a hand to support his chin.  ‘Karma?’

‘Yes, you know, my karma which is central to my spiritual well-being.’

‘And it’s been stolen?’

The woman nodded then brushed the long dark curls falling across her face back with a jingling flick.  ‘Yes, and I know who’s stolen it.’

‘Really, madam?’

‘Yes, it’s her from number ninety-two.  She’s a witch you know.’

The Sergeant straightened, closed his eyes and ran a hand across his face.

‘You don’t appear to be taking any of this down, Officer?’

The Sergeant glanced at the screen as if hoping it might come up with some answers on its own.  ‘Er, no madam.  I’m simply trying to establish the facts so I can enter them succinctly.  Also, I’m struggling with where on the form to record karma and witch.’

Kirby decided he’d leave it there and headed up the stairs.  For one thing, despite the Desk Sergeant’s obvious scepticism, Kirby had first-hand experience of what in another, less enlightened, time might be called witches and rather closer to home.

Approaching his desk Sergeant Venditelli poked his head above the screen.  ‘You’re here then, sir?’

Kirby made an exaggerated visual sweep of the office.  ‘So it would appear, Sergeant.  Unless I’m dreaming of course.  In which case it’s rather disappointing.’

Venditelli hesitated as if uncertain how to react to Kirby’s sarcasm.  He decided to ignore it.  ‘Yes, er, well, Jane were here a few minutes ago…’

‘Was, Sergeant.’

‘Pardon, sir?’

Kirby tutted.  ‘English, the language we’re both trying to communicate in…’  Seeing the blank look on the Sergeant’s face Kirby decided he was wasting his time.  ‘Anyway, Jane were… was looking for me was she?’

‘Yes, sir.  The new Chief would like to see you.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, sir.  And right away.’

With a sigh Kirby stuffed the last morsel of croissant into his mouth and headed down the corridor.

In the outer office Jane looked up.  ‘Go right in, Jonah.’  Reaching for the doorknob he heard her mutter.  ‘And the best of luck.’

Kirby opened the door and asked the standard question to which they both knew the answer and in Kirby’s opinion started things off on the right foot.  ‘You wanted to see me, Ma’am.’

Chief Inspector Hilary Grantham looked up from the desk, on which was a wood and brass nameplate announcing she was indeed Chief Inspector Hilary Grantham.  She raised a well-crafted eyebrow.  ‘Patently.’

Not the traditional response.  Kirby smiled.  The Chief looked him up and down to the point Kirby wondered if there was a button missing on his jacket or worse still his flies were undone.  He resisted the temptation to check.

‘Sit down, Inspector.’

Kirby sat and waited following his own advice of never starting the conversation with a senior officer, especially not a newly appointed one.

‘I have of course talked to the Superintendent about you.’

Kirby nodded.  ‘The Superintendent, yes Ma’am.’

‘And he, reluctantly it seemed to me, mentioned you’d been involved in some strange cases of late.’

‘Strange, Ma’am, yes.’

‘In fact he used the word, weird.’

‘Weird, yes Ma’am.’

The Chief hesitated, lent forward a little and frowned.  ‘Inspector, is it your intention to go through this meeting simply repeating what I say?’

‘Repeat, Ma’am?’  Kirby caught the frown deepening.  ‘Er, no, Ma’am.  Of course not.’

‘Good, Inspector, because if you did it would prove very unsatisfactory,’ she paused for a second before adding, ‘for both of us.’

Kirby tried his best helpful smile.

The Chief picked up a thin file from her desk and waved it in his direction.  ‘I’ve been reading the report on your recent case, Inspector.’

‘Report, ma’…’ Kirby checked himself.  ‘Really?’

‘The now Super may have accepted such things when he was Chief, however, as you’ll find out I do things a little differently.  Yes, I find it most unsatisfactory.’

‘Un…  In what way, Ma’am?’

The Chief took a quick breath in and out.  She placed the file back on the desk, flicked open the cover and waved a hand over the contents.  ‘There are more gaps and holes in it than substance.  In places whole events are skimmed over in just a few words.’

If only she knew how difficult it had been to come up with even those few words, Kirby thought.

The Chief turned a few pages.  ‘Apart from the sections involving Inspector Wilson from the antiquities group and the arrest of Professor Peters and Dr Carter there is a sad lack of any detail what-so-ever.’

Kirby stroked his chin.  This had been worrying him ever since the old Chief’s promotion had been announced.  The old Chief had appreciated when a case went beyond the weirdness scale of weird, very weird and extremely weird there were things that were best not to know, otherwise the Chief would have to try and explain them to others.  And there were some things which could never be reported, partly for reasons of sanity and partly because if they did it’d spark a whole new investigation of the sort nobody wanted.  ‘And you’ve talked to the Super, Ma’am?’

‘Yes.  And frankly, how shall I put it, his explanation was also lacking in detail and clarity.  He even suggested I simply take your word for it.  Well, Inspector Kirby, in my regime,’ she picked up the file again and slapped it with her free hand, ‘this just won’t do.’  She leaned over and dropped it on his side of the desk.  The Chief smiled a smile a venomous snake would have been proud of.  ‘So try again, Inspector.’

 

Kirby sat at his desk staring at the screen willing it to type the report without the intervention of his fingers.  The Chief might be demanding a new report on the business with the university archaeology department, Professor Peters, the Wall and all that.  However, if he put everything in that had actually happened she’d be even less pleased and he’d be marched out of the building accompanied by several large men in whites coats.  He stared at one of the “holes” she’d marked in red as needing to be filled.  He sighed.  Some holes were too big to fill.  Holes that were better left with a ten-foot fence around them, preferably electric, with a big notices saying “KEEP OUT OR ELSE”.  He huffed, thinking about Roman Legate Atticus Tiberius Julianus.  There was no way he could put an actual Roman Legate, who had a mobile phone and rode a mountain bike, in the report.  He looked down at the Post-it on the next page, “this is evasive and smacks of being downright economical with the truth.”  He tutted.  He didn’t think of it as being economical, more sparing.  As in sparing people from details which would have them either laughing or crying and have him whisked off to a psychiatric unit never to be seen again.

His fingers were hovering over the keyboard while his mind drifted to thoughts of another coffee when the phone rang.  Kirby pulled it from his pocket, did a little juggle, almost dropped it, recovered and then at the third attempt managed to answer the call.  ‘Kirby.’

‘It’s me, sir.’

‘Ah, the inestimable Con… no, no, apologies, Sergeant, Shirley Barker.  Well done Shirley, much deserved.’

‘Thank you, sir.  And thanks for the help and pushing me into it.  If it wasn’t for you…’

‘Nonsense, Shirley.  You’re a good copper,’ Kirby smiled to himself, ‘and you’ve been trained by the best.’

‘Yes, sir.  Never doubted it, the training bit that is.’

‘So what is it, Shirley?’

‘Well, sir, d’you remember the case of Maisie Stoker?’

‘All too well, Con…Sergeant.  It was ten years ago and one of the first I led as a D.I.  We never found her.  I’m mean nothing, not a trace.  One minute she was walking to school with her friends the next minute it was as if she’d disappeared into thin air.  Her friends didn’t see anything, no-one in the area at the time saw anything.  We never had single lead, well not a credible one anyway.  And believe me, we even chased up the far from credible ones just in case.’

‘I know, sir, I’ve seen the summary.’

‘So’

‘Well, sir, something’s turned up.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yes, her school bag to be precise.’

 

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